So, You Think You Know Wasabi? Think Again!

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So, you think you know wasabi? Most wasabi paste you see on the shelves isn’t even wasabi at all. In fact, you’d be lucky to find more than 1% of real wasabi powder in the ingredients. Most of what we consume in the U.S. is a green horseradish paste meant to mimic the bite of real wasabi.

True wasabi comes from a leafy, green plant that requires full shade and an abundance of water. As the wasabi plant grows, it develops a stem at the base of the plant. This underground stem, or stalk, grows upwards with the plant. Many people refer to this stalk as a rhizome, but this is technically incorrect. True rhizomes, or rootstocks, grow horizontally under the ground, while wasabi stalks grow vertically. If you look at it closely, you’ll actually notice that the wasabi stalk resembles a miniature palm tree, and the two plants are very similar. Like a palm tree, a wasabi plant will shed old leaves as it grows. The leftover cells from these old fronds harden and, over time, form the long stalk. In palm trees, we mistakenly refer to these stems or stalks as trunks. But, again, it’s actually just a reinforced stem! In the wasabi plant, this stem is the part of the plant that packs the most punch. Once a wasabi plant reaches maturity, the stalk is harvested and used to make wasabi paste.


Wasabi plants are very sensitive to the sun, so they must be kept in shaded areas and watered constantly. It actually takes a full 2 years for a wasabi plant to reach maturity and they can’t be harvested until then! If they’re harvested early, the wasabi stalk won’t be fully grown and won’t deliver optimal flavor. You can harvest the plant’s leaves within 8 weeks of planting wasabi, but while the leaves do contain some wasabi flavor, they are not nearly as potent as the wasabi stalk. Most of the time, if you buy a tube of “real” wasabi off of the shelf, it contains a small percentage of powdered wasabi leaves. This is cheaper for the company producing the wasabi paste because this method doesn’t require the entire plant to be harvested. However, this is not the best way to experience true wasabi!


Real wasabi paste has to be specially prepared using a special, ultra-fine grater that can break down the wasabi at a molecular level. This releases the potent flavor and creates a smooth, creamy paste. Sharkskin graters or very, very fine graters, like the ones used for ginger, are ideal for this.


Once you’ve got your wasabi stalk, the first thing you want to do is store the wasabi in your refrigerator with a moist paper towel. If you don’t use all of your wasabi stalk right away, you can continue to store it this way for up to one month. Just make sure to take it out of the refrigerator and rinse it in cold water every two to three days. We don’t recommend storing the wasabi stalk in the freezer whole, but once you’ve ground it into wasabi paste, you can freeze the paste. More on this later.


Once you’re ready to make some real wasabi, make sure that you have all of the necessary utensils on hand, like your grater and a small scraper or spatula to get the wasabi paste off of the grater. Also, make sure that any foods that you’re planning to eat with your wasabi have already been prepared. Once the wasabi has been grated, it will take five minutes for the flavor to fully develop. However, the flavor peaks and begins to diminish after only twenty minutes! So, you’ll want to make sure that you have everything cooked, prepared, and ready to go so that you can use that twenty minutes to enjoy your wasabi.


Making the wasabi paste is relatively easy, but there are a few guidelines to follow. First, wash the wasabi to make sure that it’s clean enough to eat. Gently pat it dry, then get ready to grate! Most importantly, make sure that you do not peel the wasabi or try to remove the outer layer in any way! This is critical. Though it isn’t the prettiest part of the plant, this outermost layer contains the most flavor. If you remove this, the resultant wasabi will lack flavor and will not produce the intense, sinus-burning feeling that we know and love!


To make the wasabi paste, gently apply the end of the wasabi to the grater and grate in a circular motion. There’s no need to apply excess pressure, gently pushing the wasabi into the grater should be enough. As you grate, be mindful of the wasabi paste as it forms. Do not remove the paste from the grater. Instead, keep the paste on the grater and continue to grate over it. This will allow the wasabi to break down even further and ensures that the end result will be as velvety smooth as possible.


Once you’ve made as much wasabi as you need, use a scraper or spatula to get all of the paste off of the grater and arrange as desired. Now, you’ll have to be patient. The wasabi needs at least five minutes to develop its full flavor, so set a timer and wait! Once the five minutes has passed, enjoy your wasabi at its peak before it begins to fade, which can happen as early as twenty minutes after grating.


Even after you’ve grated some of your wasabi stalk, you can continue to store it in your refrigerator with a damp paper towel for up to one month. We don’t recommend storing whole wasabi stalks in the freezer, but you can grate the entire wasabi stalk, then individually package the paste in freezer-safe cling wrap. Simply drop a dollop of wasabi into the center of the plastic wrap, then roll it into a ball. Each single serving can be defrosted as needed. Remember, if you freeze wasabi paste before letting the flavor develop, you’ll have to wait five minutes after defrosting it!


Now that we’ve piqued your interest, are you ready to try true wasabi? This month, Jungle Jim’s Fairfield is getting a small number of real wasabi roots in our International Produce Department so that you can experience the flavor and subtle nuance that fresh wasabi has to offer at a great Jungle Jim’s price! If you decide to make your own wasabi and come up with any questions about how to store and prepare your wasabi root that weren’t answered here, please reach out to us on social media or talk to us during your store visit! We are extremely knowledgeable about our selection and will be happy to answer any questions!

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